Color-blind school discipline?

June 21, 1994

A recent article by staff writer Lan Nguyen reported on the preponderance of school suspensions given black students, particularly males. Nationally, black students were suspended in 1992 at three times the rate of whites. In Maryland, the gap was sometimes wider: In Harford and Howard counties, black students were suspended almost five times as often as non-blacks; in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, blacks were punished at least twice as often.

The good news: Educators have recognized a problem that needs to be addressed. The bad news (or at least the unknown): What to do about it.

What we should not do is bog down in a lot of hateful, bigoted talk about one group of students seeking a separate standard for discipline.

The solution is not to set separate levels of acceptable behavior and punishment for black and white students. Students from much different cultural backgrounds may need to be approached in different ways, however. Harvard philosopher Cornel West writes of a macho front that young black males in particular adopt in response to their treatment in a world that often inherently doesn't trust them. One can disagree with Dr. West's observation, but can't quarrel with the fact that the school system can either attempt to beat down that trait, or work to overcome it.

Some people will argue that the schools can't possibly accommodate every group's unique characteristics. Yet society does it all the time for reasons besides race. Parents are less apt to spank a daughter than a son, for instance, because "she's a girl." Discipline standards vary based on a child's age, or for reasons of physical or mental handicaps. Cultural differences are often seen as less important, mostly because the majority of the population doesn't feel them, but they can be substantive.

Continuing to reform education in ways to energize all children, particularly in disadvantaged communities, will help resolve some of the discipline gap. Beyond that, applying discipline to solve problems, not simply to exact punishment, should be the goal. One of our colleagues who spent this year as a school volunteer was struck by how well the teachers understood the behavioral idiosyncrasies of each pupil. A student exhibits his or her problems throughout a school year, not as isolated flash points. A discipline system can't be a push-button apparatus that equates this act to that penalty. School systems aren't court systems. Their core mission is to develop students.

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